I penned them within their own defences like sheep; victory lay curled in the hollow of my hand. I, who had lived behind walls since the day of my birth, knew better than any other man alive how to attack them. No walls save those of Troy itself were invulnerable. This was my moment. I gloried in Agamemnon’s defeat, vowing I would make that proud man feel the despair we had endured ever since his thousand ships sailed out from behind Tenedos. Heads lined their pathetic wall as I drove with Polydamas beside me in my car. Kebriones had gone to find water for the horses, good man.
‘What do you think?’ I asked Polydamas.
‘Well, we face no Troy, but they’re tricky ramparts, Hektor. The two causeways so widely separated are clever. So are the trench and the palisade. Can you see their mistake?’
‘Oh, yes. The gap between the wall and the trench is too wide,’ I answered. ‘We’ll use their causeways, but not to attack their gates. We’ll use them to cross the palisade and trench, then swing our men in behind the trench to attack the wall itself. The stone hereabouts isn’t easy to quarry, so they had to build in wood except for their watchtowers and buttresses.’
Palamedes nodded. ‘Yes, I’d do the same, Hektor. Shall I send back to Troy for combustibles?’
‘At once – anything that will burn, even ordinary cooking fat. While you do that, I’ll call an assembly of my leaders,’ I said.
When Paris – last to arrive, as always – strolled up, I told the group what I intended to do.
‘Two thirds of the army will come in across the Simois causeway, one third across at Skamader. I’m going to divide the troops into five segments. I’ll lead the first, with Polydamas. Paris, you’ll take the second. Helenos, you’ll take the third, with Deiphobos. We three will come in here at Simois. Aineas, you’ll take the fourth section across at Skamander. Sarpedon and Glaukos will also use Skamander.’
Helenos was beaming because I had preferred to put him in charge than Deiphobos, who couldn’t make up his mind whether he was angrier at that slight, or at the fact that Paris had been given his own division. Nor was Aineas very happy at being lumped in with Sarpedon and Glaukos as a foreigner.
‘As the men reach the inside ends of the causeways they’ll turn to walk towards each other, Simois to Skamander, until they fill all of the space along the wall between it and the trench. In the meantime the noncombatants can be dismantling the palisade and turning it into ladders and firewood. Fire is our best tool. Fire will bring their wall down. So our first job will be to start those fires and make it impossible for the defenders to put them out.’
Among the leaders was my cousin Asios, always a thorn in my side because he never wanted to follow orders.
‘Hektor,’ he said, too loudly, ‘do you intend to abandon your cavalry?’
‘Yes,’ I said without hesitation. ‘What use can it be? The last thing we need are horses and chariots in an enclosed space.’
‘What about attacking the gates?’
‘They’re too easily defended, Asios.’
He snorted. ‘Rubbish! Here, let me show you!’
Then, before I could countermand him, off he ran, shouting to his squadron to mount their cars. In the lead, he lashed his team onto the Simois causeway. Though it was wide, so too is a team of three horses abreast; the near and the off animal rolled eyes wildly at the spikes protruding out of the ditch on either side until their panic communicated itself to the middle horse. Next moment all three were rearing and plunging, and had thrown Asios’s charioteers behind him into confusion as well. While Asios’s driver fought to control the team, the gates at the end of the causeway swung open a little. Into the breach stepped two men at the head of a large company. Their standard showed that they were Lapiths; I shuddered. Asios was a dead man. One of the two leaders cast his spear and plugged my braggart cousin through the chest. He pitched out of the chariot in a huge upward leap to land, sprawled out, on the stakes in the ditch. His driver followed quickly; the Lapiths stepped around the chariot and laid into those who had followed. There was nothing we could do to help. Carnage wrought, the Lapiths retired in good order and the Simois gates were closed.
Now I had a mess to clear off the causeway before I could start my men, but in the meantime Aineas, Sarpedon and Glaukos had a long march to the Skamander causeway – which, I reflected with satisfaction, would not be blocked by any defenders. Achilles sat on the other side of the Skamander gates, and Achilles had abrogated his duty to Agamemnon. A silly girl was more important to him than his fellow countrymen were. What a sham.
The men poured across at a run and turned inwards along the base of the wall, greeted by a storm of spears, arrows and stones from the defenders. Their shields over their heads, they suffered little from the missiles as they trotted steadily towards the Skamander causeway, where the foreign troops were beginning to turn inwards too. Noncombatants were already tearing the wooden palisade apart, turning the longer bits into ladders, chopping up anything not wanted into kindling. Oil, pitch and cooking fat were beginning to arrive from Troy when I had the notion of making my men construct frames on which they could put their shields as roof shingles, work under cover. The fires were lit; I watched smoke begin to plume towards the suddenly frightened faces along the top of the wall. Water cascaded down, but some of my shelters had been adapted to shield the fires until they caught too well to be extinguished; I also found the blackness of watered oily smoke a great advantage.
We tried scaling with the ladders, but that the Greeks were too wily to permit. Ajax charged up and down the middle section, where I was, roaring lustily and shoving ladders down with his foot. Wasteful. I ordered a cease.
‘It must be the fires,’ I said to Sarpedon, whose troops had married mine.
Lit first, the fires in our section now burned fiercely. Lykian bowmen kept the heads on the parapet down below the breastworks, while other Lykians and my Trojans fed the fires with oil.
‘Let me try for the walls,’ said Sarpedon.
Shielded by smoke, the ladders went up between the fires and stayed there while Sarpedon’s bowmen fired volley after volley at the defenders. Then, magically it seemed, Lykian helmet plumes waved atop the wall; the struggle was joined. Vaguely I heard some Greek captain call for reinforcements, but I didn’t expect Ajax and his Salaminians. Within moments the little victory became a rout; bodies thudded at our feet, Lykian war cries turned to screams of pain. And Teukros was there behind his brother’s shield, firing his darts not into the mêlée atop the wall, but down on us.
A choked whimper beside me was followed by the weight of someone slumping against me; I lowered Glaukos to earth with an arrow clear through his shoulder, armour and all. Too deep. I looked up at Sarpedon and shook my head; pink foam was bubbling from Glaukos’s mouth, a sign of imminent death.
They were as close as twins, they had ruled together and loved each other for years. The death of one surely meant the death of the other.
Sarpedon roared his anguish briefly, then seized a horse blanket from around a wounded soldier, muffled it about his face and shoulders, and stepped straight over one of the fires. A rope dangled from a grappling hook above, overlooked by the Greeks in their anxiety to push the Lykians from the parapet. Sarpedon grasped it and heaved with a strength not normally given to a man, so great was his grief for Glaukos. The wood groaned and creaked, the blackened logs began to gape and split; a big section of wall suddenly collapsed around us. Trojans unlucky enough to be under it were crushed, Greeks unlucky enough to be atop it came plummeting with it, and in an instant the whole middle section of my line was a shambles. Through the gap I saw tall stone houses and barracks, the ranks of ships beyond, and the grey Hellespont. Then Sarpedon blocked my view; he threw the blanket away, picked up his sword and shield, and entered the Greek camp howling murder.
The Greeks broke before us as we advanced, more and more of our men pouring through until the Greeks rallied and faced us. Ajax was there encouraging resistance, but in this crush neither of us could hope for duelling room. The line gave not a fraction either way; Idomeneus and Meriones brought their Cretans up, and my brother Alkathoos dropped. I dashed the tears from my eyes and cursed my weakness, though it was more fury than sorrow. I fought the better for it.
Faces came and went – Aineas, Idomeneus, Meriones, Menestheus, Ajax, Sarpedon. There were many Trojans amid the Lykians and Dardanians now; a glance behind revealed that the gap in the wall was much wider than it had been. Only the purple plumes prevented our killing our own, the crush was so great, the ground so hotly contested. Men died as wastefully as bravely; my boot heels kept slipping on human cobbles, and in places the pressure was so enormous that dead men actually stayed upright, mouths open, wounds bubbling. My arms and chest were covered in the blood of other men, I dripped it.
Polydamas materialised alongside me. ‘Hektor, you’re needed. We’re through the breach in great numbers, but the Greeks are strong. Towards Simois as soon as you can, please!’
It took time to disengage without panicking those I was leaving behind, but eventually I was able to slip backwards until I could edge my way along the Greek wall, cheering the men on as I went, reminding them that ultimate victory was ours the moment we burned those thousand ships and gave them no hope of sailing away.
Someone tripped me. He almost parted with his head for it, save that in gauging the blow I saw who sat there, giggling.
‘Why don’t you watch where you’re going?’ Paris asked.
I stared at him, thunderstruck. ‘Paris, you never cease to amaze me. While men are dying everywhere, you sit safe and sound. With enough leisure to amuse yourself by tripping me up.’
Even that didn’t wipe the smile from his face. ‘Well, if you think I’m going to beg your forgiveness, Hektor, think again! If it wasn’t for me you wouldn’t be here, and that’s the truth. Who picked off the Greek somebodies one by one with his arrows, eh? Who forced Diomedes to leave the field, eh?’
I yanked him up by his long black curls and set him on his feet. ‘Then pick off some more!’ I snarled. ‘Ajax, maybe – eh?’
Giving me a look of loathing, Paris slithered off, leaving me to discover that the part of our line in trouble was being attacked by Ajax and a big company of Salaminians.
The whole front of the battle had changed direction. We fought now among the houses, difficult and perilous work; every building harboured Greeks lying in ambush. But those in the open were falling back steadily towards the beach and the ships. Ajax heard my war cry and answered with his famous ‘Ai! Ai! Woe! Woe!’ We pushed through the heaving bodies to come at each other, I with my spear at the ready. Then, almost as I was upon him, he bent suddenly and came up holding a boulder in both hands, a chock used to stabilise a beached ship. My spear was useless. I threw it away and drew my sword, counting on my superior speed to get me to him first. He flung the rock with all his might at pointblank range. I felt a tearing pain as it caught me squarely on the chest, then I fell.
Out of a humming darkness into a world of terrible pain; I felt the taste of blood in my mouth and vomited, opened my eyes to see blackish blood on the ground beside me, then lost my senses again. The second time I came around the pain was not as bad; one of our surgeons was kneeling over me. I struggled to sit up, he helping me.
‘You have some badly bruised ribs and a few ruptured veins, Prince Hektor, but nothing more serious,’ he said.
‘The Gods are with us today!’ I gasped, leaning on him as he got me the rest of the way to my feet.
The more I moved, the less the agony; I kept on moving. Some of my men had carried me beyond the Simois causeway and put me down near my own chariot. Kebriones was grinning at me.
‘We thought you were dead, Hektor.’
‘Get me back there,’ I said, climbing aboard.
Not to have to walk the whole way was a blessing, but at the back of the press I had to get down. Deeming me dead, my army had begun to falter, but once enough men learned that I was alive and returning to the fight, they rallied. The sight of my face must have been a bitter blow to the Greeks. They broke and fled through the houses until a leader unknown to me managed to halt them under the bow of a lone ship standing, a kind of figurehead in itself, well forward of the first seemingly endless row of ships. We beat the Greeks to their knees, for they refused to retreat any further; only Ajax, Meriones and a few Cretans remained to defy us.
The prow of the lone ship loomed over my head; I saw success within my very grasp as Ajax planted his feet in front of me and raised his sword – my sword, given to him as a gift. I lunged and he parried neatly; it was our duel all over again, but this time no eyes had opportunity to watch us, and all around us others fought with equal savagery.
‘Whose – ship?’ I gasped.
‘Belonged – to – Protesilaos,’ he panted.
‘I – burn – it!’
‘See – you – burn – first!’
More Greeks were arriving to defend what was obviously a talisman vessel as a sudden surge of movement carried Ajax and me apart. Some of my own Royal Guard were with me now, and the Greeks opposing us were not of Salaminian quality. We pushed on, taking life after life. Ajax swam into my vision again, but this time he didn’t try to turn us back. With a series of mighty heaves he pulled himself up onto the deck of the Protesilaos ship, as quick and lithe as a tumbler. There he picked up a long pole and swung it back and forth in lazy circles, knocking my men clean off the deck the moment they reached it.
When the last Greek opposing me was dead I seized a pair of Trojan shoulders and scrambled up until I could take hold of the Protesilaos prow. From there down to the deck was a single leap. In front of me Ajax stood swaying on his feet, still unconquered. We took stock of each other, each of us feeling in the same instant all the exhaustion of so much fighting. Shaking his huge head slowly, as if to convince himself that I did not exist, he brought his pole around. I raised my sword and met it with the blade, shearing it in two. The sudden loss of balance almost tipped him over; he righted himself, groping for his sword. I scuttled forward, sure he was done, but again he showed me what a great warrior he was. Instead of meeting me he ran to the stern, bunched his muscles and leaped from the Protesilaos ship to the one directly behind it in the middle of the first row.
I abandoned him. Something within me loved that man as he surely loved me. Mutual affection grows, friends or enemies. I knew the Gods did not want us to kill each other; we had exchanged duelling gifts.
I leaned over the rail and looked down on a sea of purple Trojan plumes.
‘Give me a torch!’
Someone tossed one upwards. I caught it, walked down to the empty mast amid its shrouds and let the fire lick lovingly about those worn ropes, the cracked dry wood. From the next ship Ajax watched me, arms hanging limply by his sides, tears rolling down his face. The flames kindled; a sheet of fire ran up the mast to the crosstrees, the deck began to weep trickles of smoke from other torches thrown below through the rowing ports. I ran back to the prow, mounted it.
‘Victory is ours!’ I shouted. ‘The ships are aflame!’
My men took up the cry, surging to meet the Greeks as they clustered in front of the ships resting in line behind the lonely Protesilaos talisman.